July 15, 2010
We are up at 4:30 a.m., do some very last-minute packing, shoving of suitcases into the car. It’s still pretty dark, just edges of light on the horizon as we leave the driveway. It’s eerie having our grandson drive us to the airport. Jordan is awake and talkative; I am red-eyed and quiet in the back seat.
Check-in is so different when traveling in our own country – smooth and easy. When we get to our gate, Cugina has a gift: a notebook, a pen (with our names on them) and a funny Canadian luggage tag. She is amazing! She also gives us the day’s itinerary with historical notes. I write down this sentence in my new notebook: “Although I am tired, I find sleeping on the plane next to impossible.” It’s my last thought until I am awakened by the Captain announcing our descent into St. John’s. Guess it wasn’t so impossible after all.
The airport is ringed by trees, as though they are a crowded golf course audience. Everywhere we see evidence of the reason Newfoundland is called “The Rock”; roads are hewn out of the huge colourful boulders. We collect our cars – one black, one red – and head out in tandem. The rock peers out from green covers along the route. The sun has made a shy appearance from behind the clouds. We encourage it by singing, sun, sun, Mr. Golden sun…
It’s not long before we arrive on Gower Street, where the houses are narrow, two or three stories, and spectacularly painted. How freeing to be able to just pick an outlandish colour and dazzle the neighbours! We are staying at the Chef’s Inn. (Described by Cugina as a place with beautifully appointed rooms, each with comfy queen sized beds – locally handcrafted in the traditional style, private en-suite bathrooms with tub and shower, fluffy white towels, robes, hairdryer, and local products.” And she is right!) Vince and I have a room called The Narrows. It has a lovely view of the harbour, the tumbling back yards that head toward the sea, and the hills on either side. We spy the Cabot Tower from here. Ships churn in and out.
As we head out for the afternoon, it’s very warm, so we don’t take our brand spanking new jackets that withstand wind or rain. Lesson Number One.
Bill, our Innkeeper, serves us fresh lemonade. We tell him we’re off to have Fi and Chi at Ches’s and he convinces us to change the itinerary and go to the Duke of Duckworth instead.
We drive through the hilly, winding streets, and Mike finds a parking spot immediately across from the Duke. Carolyn and Wendy have to stand in a vacant spot and wave away the other cars before Dennis is able to park. The Duke of Duckworth is at the top of a narrow, steep laneway with a zillion steps down to Water Street. It’s a small establishment, but again we are lucky – a group of eight is leaving just as we are ready to sit. The food is delicious and so is the beer! It’s called Blue Star and we like it so much we have two. Most of us have fi and chi, though Dennis has fish cakes that are to die for and Rita has a veggie club that’s magnificent (except for the olives).
While we are enjoying ourselves in the lively little pub, the rain begins to pelt down outside. For now, we don’t care.
After lunch, the sun comes back out so we make the long winding drive up to the top of Signal Hill. Here we discover the wind: a capricious fellow who is whipping mercilessly at our hair, not to mention our bare arms (and in Vince and my case, our bare legs too). We are now 600 feet above the entrance to the harbour. Signal Hill is a National Historic site where John Cabot landed and Marconi received from first transatlantic wireless message in 1901. Just to underline this latter event, Jim gets a call on his cell phone.
The tower was built in 1897 to commemorate the 400th anniversary of John Cabot’s landing. It’s a squat stone building, surrounded by magnificent vistas. On one side, we watch the waves whiten in the wind and a spray dance across the surface. On the other side, the city bursts from the rock, yellows and blues and greens of the homes, the majestic church spirals, the winding roads.
The wind is relentless. We feel as though we could tumble over the hill as we tour all sides of the Tower and the rock. It’s so strong, they’ve cancelled the Tattoo ceremony. Whimps! Mike, Rita and I walk through the one small building that is left standing, made entirely of stone: we think it might have been the "magazine" that held the ammunition. But it's empty now and then acoustics are amazing, so we sing "Lights of the City" (after all, it's a pilgrimage). One of the other tourists says, "That makes yer voice what it ought, b'y."
We head off back down toward the city, then up again on the other side to the Basilica of St. John the Baptist. It’s a striking landmark with it two towers: we could see it clearly from Signal Hill, although up close it looks deceivingly small. It’s a Romanesque design, exquisite with granite and slate walls, an ornate ceiling, and magnificent stained glass windows all around. The sun decides to gush through the colours, showing off for us, and we don’t mind a bit.
We speak with a Docent outside the church, a young fellow who was born in Dublin, but who now works here as a greeter/tour guide. The church was built between 1841 and 1855 and has an adjacent museum that holds a treasured selection of books, oil paintings, sacred vessels and a massive oak table dating to the late 1800’s.
We’re tired now, so we head back to the Inn and spread out on our comfy beds. I write! We want to be refreshed for tonight – we’re going to George St., to enjoy 2 blocks crammed with 20 pubs all willing to draw us a pint. We plan to take cabs! We’re going to get screeched in at Trapper John’s. I’ll tell you all about that tomorrow.